How Cruel Is This Economy to Those without a College Degree?

The first superintendent I worked for was Mark Roosevelt. I remember he used to say that we were living in an economy that was “cruel to those without the privilege of a good education”. This was more than ten years ago, and that word he chose, “cruel”, has stuck with me. It’s a strong word, and in this case a true one.

For some, it feels like a dynamic time to be coming of age. There are new ways of working, opportunities to experience multiple careers in one lifetime, high earning potential, and meaty, meaningful social, technological and environmental problems to be tackled.

For others, the same economy feels cruel and distant.

If you’re on the wrong side of this divide, you and your community have likely been feeling that cruelty Mark described. If you want to understand just how real this toll is, I recommend Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Even as someone who has long considered and talked about the divergent experiences of the educated and undereducated in this economy, the fine point the authors put on this with their data and analysis is striking.

Here is an excerpt:

“The worlds of the more and less educated have split apart, a divergence that we will see over and over again in this book. At work, companies are today more likely to be segregated by education, and as we shall see later, firms are outsourcing many low-skill jobs that used to be in-house, where people with different levels of education worked together and were part of the same company. The more and less educated are now more segregated in where they live, the successful in places where house prices are high and to which the less successful do not have access. Greater geographical segregation has widened the gap in the quality of schools attended by the children of the more and less educated. The power couples have less time to participate in community activities, other than with their children’s schools, so the more and less educated are less likely to know each other, to understand each other’s concerns, or to participate in common social activities. The tastes of the two groups are different; they eat in different kinds of restaurants, visit different websites, watch different televisions channels, get their news from different sources, worship in different kinds of churches, and read different books.” (Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, p. 53)

In 1970, those with a college degree earned 40% more than those with a high school diploma. By 2000, that difference had doubled, to 80%. Further, those without college degrees are dying from what Case and Deaton call “deaths of despair” from suicide, drug, and alcohol addiction at an increasing rate.

Source: Pew Research Center. (February 11, 2014). The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.

Case and Deaton are not the only ones looking at the data and seeing these disparities. In The Rising Cost of Not Going to College, Pew researchers show that “the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era”. They write that “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education”. 

The implications of this data for an individual family or an individual school system are clear and obvious: prepare your kids for college, and get them to and through it. It’s no guarantee of a fulfilling and successful life, but it is more of a factor than ever before.

This is important to underline. It has become fashionable in some circles to question the value of college, or whether “college is for everyone”. People are (rightly) questioning the extraordinary cost of college, especially when it comes in the form of debt that will follow a student long into their life. People are looking at new ways of learning, and wondering if YouTube and on-demand MOOCs (massive open online courses) can now substitute for a four-year degree. These may be fun, interesting, even important questions to ask, but for now the data is clear—if you are a parent you should want your child to graduate with a four-year college degree.

The implications for us as a society are much less clear. This deepening chasm—the economy lifting those with degrees and pummeling those without—cannot be healthy. I’m certain that it is one of the factors that is contributing to a growing threat to our democracy.

Unfortunately, it seems implausible to me that we can simply educate our way out of this conundrum. It took most of the 20th century to get to the point where the vast majority of Americans now earn a high school diploma (about 85% as of 2017-18). Today, about 36% of Americans aged 25 and older have a four-degree, a rate that has been increasing by about 10% every two generations. The 21st century will almost certainly push us to new heights of educational attainment, but this won’t be enough to address the growing divide Case and Deaton highlight.

The solution, if we are able to achieve one, will require cross-sector solutions (like the current infrastructure investments being considered in Washington today) that impact the economy, healthcare, education, housing and even culture. Case and Deaton focus substantial energy on healthcare for example, on the role of governments and unions, and on focusing on increasing economic growth through innovation to mitigate against a “zero-sum game of distribution”.

At the same time that we support more people to get the education they need to unlock and access the opportunity that exists for the college-educated, we need to make sure the economy works for everyone. We cannot have an economy that only works for the highly educated. And we cannot become a society in which those with more and less education live in totally separate worlds. I can’t see that leading anywhere good.

Some of the steps the Biden administration is pushing for today, such as investments in infrastructure, seem like a step in the right direction. But the big takeaway for me, and my purpose in writing this post, is to underline the point my boss Mark was making over a decade ago: that this economy really is cruel to those without the privilege of a good education. It has been gradually eating away not just their lifetime earnings and career options, but even their physical and mental health outcomes, marital options, and more. It is literally shortening lives, and leading to deaths of despair. It is important for all of us, especially those with the privilege of a college education, to take a minute to sit with this data, and think about the world we are building and where it is leading us.

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